Another Reason for Women in Church Leadership

Stages of Moral Development

Two important scholars have built on the work of Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory (widely used to help understand child development) in slightly different directions: Lawrence Kohlberg on moral development and James Fowler on faith development.  They begin with a simple consequence judgment of morality (punishment = wrong), progressing then from the most absorbed and self-interested to the most socially or universally-interested….

Kohlberg believed what drove development to higher levels was seeing the inability of a particular stage to solve problems one encountered or chose to tackle.

[Section of the book not included here deals with the idea that religious groups often have a tendency to oversimplify moral problems.  In so doing, they also help cut members off psychologically from broader input and may contribute to their staying at lower levels of personal moral development.]

Stage Concepts and Gender

 It should be noted that there appear to be gender-related ways of sorting out moral issues (and with them an important aspect of spirituality in Christian thought and many other systems).  In other words, one’s way of perceiving certain moral or spiritual situations is affected by one’s gender at least in some important respects.

Failure to account properly for this apparently affected designation of women into various stages of development in Kohlberg’s research.  Carol Gilligan, a friend and colleague of Kohlberg’s at Harvard University, was perhaps the first to point this out in the 1980s, particularly in her book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.  Kohlberg and both male and female research associates of his had noted something that Gilligan picked up on and researched further: that women’s responses to moral dilemmas tended to be grouped proportionally more than men’s into a lower stage.  It gave the appearance that many more women than men were “stuck” there.

Without going into detail here, the puzzling finding involved the way the categories were structured in terms of the use of logic to arrive at supposedly higher moral conclusions.  Explanations or more details about a moral dilemma example (test item) were not allowed from examiners; nor were respondents allowed to make suggestions or ask questions.

On one level this was necessary for objectivity.  But on another it revealed a weakness in the testing and category-setting criteria.  It failed to realize and provide for what began to emerge – that women typically used certain different perspectives and social ways of reasoning to make moral judgments than did men.  So on a broader analysis, neither gender could be said to average higher in moral reasoning than the other.

What it points out, at the least, is that a complete and balanced understanding of both the nature of spiritual maturation and how it happens require equal inclusion of both genders.  It may be that slightly different tracks or standards of development should be recognized for men and women as long as these are not taken as rigid and universal for all men or all women.

It does mean that each gender should recognize that their opposite may have a naturally different way of perceiving and weighing things and not label it as either inferior or superior but as something to be understood and learned from.  This, I believe, provides one of many good reasons for society and its institutions, including religions, to actively seek ways to include women at all levels of leadership and decision-making.

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